A four-step workout plan for resolving employee disputes


If you are like most practice owners and managers, you probably spend most of your time on "people problems."

If you are like most practice owners and managers, you probably spend most of your time on "people problems." One of the most challenging problems is deciding what to do when employees don't get along with one another. How can you sort through the torrent of "he said/she said" accusations and figure out what is really going on?

What follows is a helpful technique that family counselors use. You may want to borrow it the next time you notice that employees are not getting along. This is how it works:

Step One: Confront the Behavior

Call the two employees into your office. (If whole departments are at war with each other, call the supervisors into your office.) Tell them how unhappy you are about their behavior and that you expect them to turn things around.

Step Two: Talk it Out

Remind them that they are professionals. Tell them that you expect them to listen to each other and work out a solution. Ask one of the parties to begin by explaining his/her issues. Tell the other party that they need to listen and that they may not interrupt. When the first employee finishes, reverse their roles.

The benefits of this approach are that it is very difficult to misrepresent things when an outside party is listening and the technique forces the two parties to listen each other's perspectives.

Step Three: Hold Employees Accountable

Once the two have heard each other out, tell them that you have a lot of confidence in them. Tell them that you expect them to come up with a plan to work well together from this point on. Give them two days and set an appointment for them to tell you how they plan to turn things around.

Step Four: Follow-up and Follow-through

Make sure to keep the initial meeting (in Step 3). After that, you will need to hold short weekly "check-ins" to ask each employee, in front of the other, how things are going. This ensures that they remain accountable for the new behavior and it relieves you of the role of playing policeman.

Gradually phase out the appointments as the new, positive behavior takes hold. During this process, make sure to compliment the employees on their hard work and the good example they are setting for the rest of the staff. This rewards and reinforces the new behavior. On a broader scale, it signals to all that this is the kind of cooperative culture you expect in your practice.

Fairness is important. Beware that one or both of the employees may try to wheedle back into your good graces and make a case for him/herself outside of the slated appointment times. Do not let that happen, lest you inadvertently give the impression that you have "favorites."

Do give the process time to work: Things usually don't turn around overnight, but it is amazing how often employees are able to solve their problems when you give them a chance.

There is no fail-proof method for resolving employee disputes, but the four-step Workout Plan is a good one for confronting bad behavior. This technique also takes you out of the "Solomon" role of deciding who is right and who is wrong. Finally, it puts responsibility for professional behavior back where it belongs, on the employees, themselves.


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